With today’s society focusing more on the issue of mental health and body image, it is becoming ever clearer – you don’t need to be skin and bones to be starving.
Recently diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, depression and anxiety, student Kayleigh Welsh gives an open, honest and deeply personal insight into what it’s like to live with an eating disorder in a world which thinks you’re healthy.
Kayleigh isn’t your typical portrait of the illness – she isn’t skin and bones, she can spend days (and nights) on end with her friends, she can go for dinner; she isn’t outright starving herself. Her eating disorder isn’t debilitating in the way that the media portrays it.
The few films and television shows that portray Anorexia tend to centre around a skinny, beautiful girl who despite the fact she’s starving herself enough to be severely endangering her physical health – remains pretty. There is seldom any mention of the hair loss, the muscle atrophy and many other health complications and it is this image and idea that we see when faced with the term Anorexia Nervosa. A belief that we can simply starve ourselves and become pretty (the ideal idea of beauty being a tall, skeletal model being one promoted for years by the media) is so ingrained that often we believe that Anorexia only comes in one shape and size, with one cause and one symptom:
“If I’m having a bad time I’ll either eat loads or eat nothing but that doesn’t mean I’m not struggling with the fact I’m doing it and convinced I’m gaining.”
Having cycled through various outlets for the disease, Kayleigh has found herself struggling with binging, purging and laxative addiction. She’s found the way that is ‘right’ for her, a way to control her intake in a way that she can feel comfortable on a good day. But the control she exercises over the way she looks isn’t just about feeling pretty or looking good.
“It’s not a pretty disease – and it’s not always about being pretty,” she says. “Films and TV portray anorexia as a way in which girls starve themselves to feel pretty but it never really goes into the darker side of things. The ugly part. I mean what would you think if I told you I’d hidden stashes of half eaten food I’d spat out around my room? What would you think if I told you I just wanted to look unhealthy because it meant I was in control of how I looked? Of how people saw me or how much they believed I’m struggling?”
Although she has never reached a critically low BMI that has had her hospitalised, Kayleigh’s rapid weight loss and the maintenance of 6st9 at 4ft11 has not meant that she’s free from any of the health complications and bodily changes that come partnered with Anorexia. The bouts of weakness and feeling faint are still present, she still experiences major anxiety around food and at her lowest her body had even started covering her skin in a heavier growth of hair in order to help preserve body heat.
Having struggled with her weight and other’s perception of her, Kayleigh decided to seek a diagnosis. Her attitude of transparency with regards to her eating habits didn’t seem to be enough to have her friends and family understand or believe that the struggles she is facing are real – her disorder wasn’t causing major health concerns, so it wasn’t one in itself.
The diagnosis, while a welcome relief, has also come with its hidden and unexpected problems. While still struggling – and not even convinced she really wants to recover – she’s found that the worries that her friends and family should have with such a diagnosis almost seem to have disappeared as fast as they arose.
“It’s like they expect that my wanting a diagnosis to mean the same as wanting or being able to get healthy again,” explains Kayleigh. “ Initially I wanted a diagnosis so that my friends and family would believe me – that I wasn’t just spouting about not eating because it fit with some Hollywood ideal of beauty. I’m struggling and I’m seeking help, but I’m not better.”
And that’s where the struggle lies: nobody really steps in or takes notice until someone’s health is at a critical point, but your muscles shouldn’t need to start atrophying in order to be taken seriously as having a mental health and eating disorder. And more often than not a diagnosis is not the same thing as being on track to get healthy or recover.
The average onset age of Anorexia Nervosa is 16-17, with young people between 14 and 25 being most at risk. With an estimated 1.6 billion people diagnosed as having an eating disorder and 4 million struggling, Anorexia Nervosa is a debilitating disease with no clear cause and a huge variety of onset physical and mental signs. The disease itself is more than just starving yourself; it’s binge eating, anxiety, laxative abuse and exercise addition, among many others. Often there are symptoms that even those suffering from eating disorders are unaware are linked.
Of those surviving with the disorder, less than 50% recover, whereas 30% improve and 20% are chronically ill. The average recovery rate itself is seven years and there is the threat of a relapse throughout a sufferer’s life. Often, Anorexia Nervosa is something that sufferers are taught to manage and maintain – to find a way that they are able to live their lives as fully as they can while still restricting their diet and intake, still maintaining a low BMI – as they and their doctors understand that going above a certain weight can have worse consequences for their mental health.
“I honestly think this is something I’ll be struggling with for my whole life,” admits Kayleigh. “ I’ve maintained this weight for so long that I know it’s something I’m capable of, that I can still function relatively normally even if I spend every day fighting with the fact my weight isn’t low enough and that my intake is too high.”
With the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder due to organ failure and suicide, Anorexia Nervosa should be treated as a serious health concern no matter what stage and more should be done to educate and make both those struggling and those with loved ones suffering aware of the symptoms as Kayleigh, is all too aware.
“It’s a slow process: people are beginning to understand that this is a huge battle that I’ll live my whole life struggling, but I still hear ‘there’s nothing wrong with you’ often enough for it to be triggering.”
2 instas 1 day hwggg – Today I had my first outpatient appointment with a therapist regarding my ongoing issues with food. I was finally diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. It's something I've known and friends have suspected for a good while now, but it's a relief to finally have my feelings validated; and to know that there's no such thing as not being "thin enough" to have an eating disorder. A lot of people reading this might be looking at me n thinking that I don't "look" anorexic, the truth is I've been anorexic in every one of these photos n while I've come close to it, I've never once actually been underweight or below a healthy bmi. Eating disorders have no weight n no calorie intake, you've aw seen me eat lit a horse (am eating a 262kcal macaroni pie while a type this). What I want to say is that eating disorders are mental illnesses and there's a lot more to them than we know superficially. Whether you have a bmi of 14 or 114, you know yourself and your concerns are valid, speak to someone, it's better than struggling alone x – Thank u v much to my friends for their unwavering love n support, ano a can be difficult :)) but couldn't be doing it without yous 🌹❤🌹